What to make of the latest film from acclaimed director, career wacko and air rifle attack survivor (seriously – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXqc8TQ15w ) Werner Herzog? The man has a history ofdoing the crazy – for example, he wrote and starred in the classic “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” – made after Werner lost a bet. So when it was announced that Werner would enter the “remake/reimagining” business, by creating his own version of the early nineties shocker Bad Lieutenant, it sounds like a perfect match of man and material – didn’t it?
Now, Jaded Eye is a site about opinions, so here’s one – the original Bad Lieutenant (1992, Director Abel Ferrara) is a terrible film. Drowning in Catholic symbolism, Harvey Keitel staggers across New York, from one scene of depravity to another. Each sequence attempts to one-up the previous one, but fails to achieve anything other than deep tedium. Unable to exhibit any emotions other than slightly grumpy or slightly confused, Keitel never managed to build interest in either his plight or the world around him. By the time old Harvey ends up in a church, hands spread in ‘Christ like’ forgiveness, is anyone still awake?
So, now we have the remake, with additional subscript “Port of Call – New Orleans”; which immediately signals something different. Say ‘New Orleans’ to someone and the first word to enter their mind is Katrina. Rightly so, given the devastation wrought both by the natural disaster itself, and the resulting response, or lack of it by the American Government. No film can now be made in New Orleans without reference (intended or otherwise) to this disaster, and the new Bad Lieutenant makes no attempt to shy away from this, opening the movie right in the middle of the catastrophe.
Werner claims never to have seen the original Bad Lieutenant (lucky sod), and it shows. Almost nothing has been transferred to the update. The Bad Lieutenant of Werner’s movie is Terence McDonagh. First introduced as a sergeant, Terence and his partner find a prisoner trapped in his cell, as the rising waters threaten to drown him. Terence jumps in to save him, but in the process, irreparably damages his back. The event results in both his promotion to Lieutenant, and a permanent prescription to pain killers. Cut to one year later, and Terrence, already taking cocaine in addition to more legal pain relief drugs, is called to investigate the murder of a Senegalese family. The resulting investigation provides the backdrop to Terrence’s inevitable downward spiral, as his addictions grow, his actions become more outlandish and his grasp of sanity starts to slip. The role of Terrence is, obviously, critical to the film – he’s literally in every scene. But, fortunately, Werner has an ace up his sleeve – one Nicolas Kim Coppola.
Nic Cage (as he is better known) is on a roll at the moment. His performance in Kick Ass would have been the major talking point of the movie, had a certain Hit Girl not blown everyone else off screen (and not just because of the tabloid-baiting swearing). And here, Nic is in his element. Sporting a Richard 3rd style hunch, and a powerful screen presence, he commands attention at all times. No one working in Hollywood right now is able to match his over the top, crazed grandstanding – it compares favourable with Nineties Pacino (see Heat, The Devils Advocate, Any Given Sunday) for bug eyed , 100% pure ham. And here it fits perfectly. Cage manages the difficult feat of measuring his performance through the film. Starting (relatively) controlled and low key, it escalates beautifully until he’s screaming at dead bodies because “their soul is still dancing”.
Surrounding Cage is an interesting and highly variable cast. Eva Mendes (looking stunning, given little to do), Val Kilmer (looking fat, given little to do) and Brad Dourif (looking weird, given little to do) all provide ample support in limited screen time. It also great to see “The Craft” alumnus Fairuza Balk can still get work. Unfortunately, the lead gangster and prime suspect is played by the rapper Xzibit. Putting rappers in movies is never a good idea; at best you’ll get a one note performance as is the case here, or in Three Kings (with Ice Cube). At worst, you get Snoop Dogg. Having said all that, I suspect Werner is playing a little game with us here. Putting someone as completely uncharismatic as Xzibit on screen next to the raving Nic Cage certainly gives quite the contrast.
But ultimately, what is Werner trying to say? Why has he chosen to make this film? Is this a simple morality play about the danger of drugs? Hardly; they look kinda fun. Is it the classic fable of a good man brought down by his own weaknesses? Terrence’s Good Samaritan act is certainly the catalyst of all his troubles. Perhaps Werner is trying to say something about the city of New Orleans and its potential future. Terrence is crippled by the events of Katrina. He never physically recovers, slipping further and further into a spiral of drugs and violence. Even after some of the miraculous third act events that turn his life around, he is still in a mess and will never truly be whole again. Is this Werner’s key thesis?
Or maybe It’s just crazy to try to make sense of Werner’s World? A world I’m more than happy to spend 2 hours in.
Fun little game – now we have two Bad Lieutenants, lets make a franchise;
What other potential Bad Lieutenants features are out there?
– Port of Call: London, directed by Guy Ritchie?
– Port of Call: Gondor, directed by Peter Jackson?
– Port of Call: Mos Eisley….
Play along at home (or in the comments section)